Photo NOAH SILVESTRY
It’s still hard out there for a pimp, and these days everybody’s a pimpin’ somethin’. (That’s right, I’m droppin’ my ‘g’s like Obama at the NAACP. Peace out. [I’m bringing it back, OK?]) These are especially hard days for Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A. Dissed routinely by ex-BF/collaborator Diplo, litigiously uncoupled from her billionaire baby-daddy Benjamin Bronfman, publicly scourged by Lynn Hirschberg in a New York Times Sunday Magazine takedown for ordering truffle-flavored French fries while talking radical chic, and sued by the NFL for a cool $16.6 million for flipping America the bird at half time of Super Bowl XLVI. Plus, the utter annihilation of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan military has left her a rebel without a cause. Her last two albums, 2010’s Maya and late 2013’s Matangi, have been wet firecrackers, both commercially and artistically. But she can still bring it live, right?
I was there at the Electric Factory in ’07 and the 33rd St. Armory in ’08. Of the former, we wrote: “One of the most awe-inspiring sights my looking balls have ever seen: skyward-aimed finger guns from the ENTIRE crowd during the show-closing and tour-closing “Paper Planes” For that final burst of ecstasy, M.I.A. was right: ‘Everyone’s a winner, we’re making our fame’.” Of the latter, we wrote: “There is something fitting about a fundamental peacenik like M.I.A. transforming this mouldering edifice of the military-industrial complex into roiling rave of shock-and-awe dance jams and kaleidoscopic hip-hop and packing it with supple, stylish, draft-aged youth.” Her pre-fame Philly debut at the Ukie Hall in No Libs is legendary, up there with Nirvana at JC Dobbs for the sheer number of people who claim they were there far exceeding the venue’s capacity many times over. You know a concert’s legendary when people are willing to lie about being there.
I don’t think anyone’s going to bother lying about being at the Tower Theater Friday night. Things got off to a slow start. Performing before a luminescent two story neon Indian rug and dressed in an orange hoodie and some latter-day iteration of Hammer pants, M.I.A. kicked things off with Matangi‘s pokey lead off track “Karmageddon,” which is like taking a Quaalude right before you race in the Tour de France. I believe it morphed into “Matangi,” the second song on Matangi, but it was hard to tell, the sound mix was a hot mess at the top of her set and just went downhill from there. Key M.I.A. sonic signifiers — the baile-funk Rocky theme origami of “Bucky Done Gun” and the chicken-squawk-drum-corps chicanery of “Bird Flu” and the Modern Lovers-interpolating and armor-plated Hummer-banging of “Bamboo Banga” (which, it should be noted, sounded so spooky and downright menacing in 2007 when a bad moon was rising over the Sunni Triangle, you would’ve been forgiven for wondering exactly which side of the “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” divide she stood) cut through the echoey murk, but the effect was akin to twisting the tuning knob of a radio (look it up, kids). The Hello Nasty-ness of “Y.A.L.A” and the Rockefeller skank of “Double Bubble Trouble” (maybe I’m being obtuse, but this song strikes me as a Diplo-dissing answer to Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt”) suffered similarly. When things really went pear-shaped, as they did on “Paper Planes,” the vocals and the backing tracks were completely out of synch. That’s unforgivable. “Paper Planes” is her “Stairway To Heaven”/”Walk This Way”/”Fight The Power.” It’s the one song she is simply not allowed to fuck up. And fuck it up, she did. Royally.
I take no pleasure in saying these things. I’m on her side. I want her team to win. Given that it was the first night of her American tour, perhaps it can be chalked up to opening night jitters, a mumbly monitor mix and buggy fader work. Maybe she’s already course-corrected and back to killin’ it by the time you read this. I sure hope so, because momentum is not on her side. The Tower was only half full, and it’s not like people didn’t know about the show. The M.I.A. I saw on Friday night is not long for the pop world. She encored with “Bad Girls,” easily the def-est track on the new album (yeah, I just used ‘def,’ I’m bringin’ it back, OK?) and “Born Free” (arguably the greatest music video of all time) after inviting what looked like every female in the first 50 rows to join her onstage. Her soldiers, as M.I.A. called them, looked more like Mean Girls than Angela Davis (look it up, kids). Some took selfies, arms draped around M.I.A.’s neck as she sang about narcissistic, self-destructive party monsters, seemingly completely missing the irony of the moment. Because, you see, none of this is real until it’s on Facebook. As one woman brushed past me as she stormed out, I heard her say “All these stupid-ass hoes…” And then she was out of earshot. I turned around and asked the guy she brushed past after me if he heard the rest of what she said. “She seemed to have some issue with all these ‘stupid-ass hoes.'” I just thought you should know about this. — JONATHAN VALANIA